Yesterday I went for a walk at Prestongrange, the subject of the last post. It was nice, a wee bit cold and a bit grey and cloudy but I enjoyed being out, especially in such a dear, familiar place, which is pictured below. Cabin fever can very quickly descend during the festive period and just being able to get out for a bit, especially somewhere that isn’t work, can make all the difference and clear the head of all that befuddlement that can befall all so easily this time of year.
This is the first of a series of posts that will be a bit more planned out than normal. I often write off the top of my head about whatever comes to mind. It’s much the same approach used by the poet Norman MacCaig, who said that when he wanted to write a poem, he would ‘sit down with a blank sheet of paper and no idea whatever in my head. Into it, where there’s plenty of room, enters the memory of a place, an emotional experience, a person or, most commonly, a phrase.’ (from The Poems of Norman MacCaig, edited by Ewan McCaig, 2005, Edinburgh, Polygon). I have a list of ideas of topics for posts in the future and I plan to gather a surplus of writing so I can still post regularly even life gets in the way.
When I was looking for my Norman MacCaig book for that quote, I decided to write a little about the books and writers that have inspired me. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t read. I am told I read the newspaper from the age of three. I read stories and fact books then grew up and still read. I went through the school library and with any spare money I had would buy more books, often having to plan weeks and months in advance so I knew what I wanted and could get.
I don’t get so much time to read now, though I daresay I read more than most people. This last few days has been spent writing or watching catchup TV, as well as of course spending time with loved ones and working. I have two books on the go at the moment, which are Éamon De Valera: A Will to Power by Ronan Fanning (2015, London, Faber and Faber) and The Library At Night by Alberto Manguel (2008, New Haven, Yale University Press). Both are library books, both from the Mitchell Library’s lending collection. My to-read pile is massive and it’s why I don’t tend to buy books any more and why I strongly discourage people from buying books for me as I simply have too many. Plus I work in libraries and we need the issues.
The last book I read was a book I last read when it came out, The Old Ways by Robert Macfarlane (2012, London: Penguin). I started it when I was in Cambridge and finished it on the train through to Edinburgh yesterday. Macfarlane is one of two authors for which I actively rejoice when they bring a new book out. He writes wonderful, lyrical books about walking and being in wild places around Britain, the most recent being Landmarks, which came out about a year ago and was about the language of wild places. I had to restrict myself to a chapter a day so I could savour every drop and just revel in reading a Robert Macfarlane book for the first time. The closest analogy I can bring is one of those irritating adverts for shampoo where there is a beautiful woman standing under a waterfall lathering the shampoo into her hair, greatly enjoying the whole sensory experience in an entirely unlikely way. It’s like that but real and less physically attractive or wet. To be fair, reading Macfarlane also reminds me of reading John Muir’s nature journals and the intimacy of the experience as beautifully yet simply and clearly expressed.
The other author for whom I would put flags out is Kathleen Jamie, a poet and essayist who also writes with great insight and perception about the natural world and other things the rest of us would otherwise miss. When I was on holiday in Cambridge, I read her latest slim volume of poetry, The Bonniest Companie, and again had to restrict my reading, taking a few poems at a time sitting on park benches or in restaurants or coffee shops. I was waiting for a plate of pasta when I read ‘The Glen’, a poem about just looking. It just made me want to cheer. It brought to mind ‘On A Raised Beach’ by Hugh MacDiarmid (about whom I watched a documentary the other day, randomly), with its lines about the inward gates of birds always being open, unlike those of people. We’re getting there.
I used to write poetry and I still like to read it. There are certain poets I quote or think about in different situations. Quoting Burns once got me a job. Every time I feel self-pity, I think of a Jackie Kay poem called ‘The Mask of the Martyr’. When I used to go on day trips to Glasgow, at some point I would go to George Square and think about Edwin Morgan’s poem ‘The Starlings in George Square’ with the slightly absurd lines about the cables to Cairo getting fankled and questions about when the last boat to Milngavie was. In many wild places, particularly near lakes or water, I think of WB Yeats and ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree’, of bee-loud glades and the peace dropping slow. (If you ever visit the National Library of Ireland in Kildare Street, Dublin, go to the Yeats exhibition, which features that particular poem beautifully read by Seamus Heaney.)
My favourite book is The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. It was the first book I ever read that taught me books could be funny, just as Roald Dahl taught me that writing could be lyrical. Humour is crucial to life and Douglas Adams made my teenage years a bit less bleak. I didn’t like literary analysis at school so chose to analyse the Hitchhiker’s Guide because any amount of butchery wouldn’t affect my feelings about it plus it has some nifty, erudite passages which I made sure I quoted to sound more enlightened.
One of my other favourite writers is Muriel Spark. I read The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie for the first time just after a very long exam at school. It’s a very short book and therefore I just devoured it. Spark is another of those writers you just need to savour as every word is measured and carefully placed to do its job. I was once told to read her as she would teach me to write, with the very fine A Far Cry From Kensington a key example. A volume of her essays, The Golden Fleece (2014, Manchester, Carcanet), came out a few years ago and was absolutely glorious.
Reading has been a key part of my life and has shaped what I know about the world and how I perceive it. Wonderfully, I get to give people books and information for a living, which never gets old. I particularly read biographies and crime novels but there is nothing better than discovering something new, or it being recommended.
In that spirit, I would like to close with a recitation of the books I most enjoyed in 2015.
Neurotribes by Steve Silberman – a prize-winning look into the history of autism and how perceptions have changed over time
Shankly: My Story by Bill Shankly – the memoir of the famous Liverpool manager with his thoughts about football and life itself.
Yes Please by Amy Poehler – the autobiography of the American actress and comedian that managed to be hilarious and thought-provoking.
Living On The Volcano: The Secrets of Surviving As A Football Manager by Mike Calvin – thoughts and insights from the world of football management, particularly those aspects we fans don’t see.
Cold Granite by Stuart MacBride – the first of the Logan MacRae series of crime novels set in Aberdeen. Incredibly funny and probably the best thing to have come out of the Granite City since the A90.
I’ll No’ Tell You Again by Tony Roper – autobiography of the actor, most notable to me because he writes about a place I know well, the Citizens Theatre, plus I read it on a lovely spring afternoon in the grounds of the Tullie House museum in Carlisle, as pictured below.
Not My Father’s Son by Alan Cumming – another actor’s autobiography but an incredibly moving insight into his very difficult upbringing and endeavours to come to terms with it and move on.
Tony Benn’s diaries – in my continuing fascination with the minutiae of politics, these have been brilliant in trying to find some small insight into recent political history, as well as into the Labour Party as it is today, particularly under Jeremy Corbyn. The Labour Party defies belief at times and reading Benn helps me make sense of them.
I wish anyone reading this a happy, peaceful and prosperous New Year.